22 October 2014

Mocking our (manufactured) nightmares

Ebola is vanishingly rare in the US (so far, just one death and two other cases), but the fear of Ebola is gripping the country like an epidemic -- or at least certain people are trying so hard to spread that fear that they're practically engaged in a weird psychological equivalent of bioterrorism.  Some of this is fringe-right elements trying to invent a crisis which they can then blame, somehow, on President Obama -- Progressive Eruptions has had a couple of very good posts on this.  Some of it is something more visceral, a weird human response that surfaces from time to time, obsessing on fantasy threats which we know deep down are not real, so we can experience the thrill of danger without facing actual danger -- perhaps the same impulse that accounts for our fascination with the great villains of movies and literature.

But there's another response, more "underground" and non-political, which some people have found disturbing (though I think they're missing the point).  It's basically mockery, though that word doesn't totally capture it -- it's also treating Ebola as though the disease itself were something like a celebrity, with all the triviality and triteness that entails.  I've already mentioned the Ebola-virus plush toy:

Yes, the manufacturer may well have meant it to be educational, but the fact that it sold out almost at once suggests another impulse at work among buyers.  Then there are the inevitable "memes" playing off the elaborate precautions required by Ebola's presence:

.....or pop-culture expressions like "going viral":

.....or the ever-popular practice of mocking politicians:

By far the weirdest meme (in the original sense of the word) has been Ebola-Chan, the Ebola Goddess, already the subject of hundreds of adoring portrayals online.  Ebola-Chan is depicted as a "cute" anime-style character, usually wearing a nurse's uniform, with long pink hair that curls at the ends into the characteristic pretzel shape of the virus, and often holding a bloody skull.  Sometimes she has small bat-like wings.  A few samples:

OK, so what's going on here?  This is all rather tasteless (and some of the Ebola-Chan images are a lot more disturbing than the examples I chose here) and, yes, it is systematic mockery of a widespread and fearful epidemic.  That epidemic being mocked, however, is not the Ebola epidemic itself, but the epidemic of hype inspired by it.  Again and again, over decades, people have been barraged with imprecations that they should be terrified of things that actually pose no threat to them, and should even turn their lives upside down taking precautions.  But people inevitably wise up, and then they are not happy with having been frightened for no good reason.

(Parenthetically, I find it interesting that the word "love" comes up so often in reference to Ebola-Chan, who despite being cute is obviously a rather nasty monster.  The Abrahamic religions which infect our cultures tell us we are "loved" by, and should love in return, a God which their own scriptures depict as endlessly tormenting and killing us.  Perhaps there's a bit of mockery of that here, too.)

I'm old enough to remember when AIDS first burst on the scene, and the campaign of fear-mongering which soon followed.  As we now know, AIDS is a blood-borne (not venereal) disease and is one of the most difficult-to-transmit infections ever discovered -- it can be spread by a few activities such as anal sex or re-use of contaminated hypodermic needles, but hardly at all by vaginal or oral sex (unless existing open sores due to venereal disease allow access to the bloodstream) and certainly not by casual contact.  In the advanced countries, after more than 30 years, AIDS remains mostly confined to small "risk groups" of people who have such specific vulnerabilities to it.  But that's not how it was presented at the time.  The media and popular culture were full of lurid fears that AIDS would soon engulf the whole country unless everyone took elaborate, lifestyle-altering precautions.  In my opinion, a lot of this was motivated by an opportunistic impulse to sabotage the sexual revolution, which had been rolling along quite nicely until suddenly all these nasty busybodyish people popped up brandishing condoms at everyone.  But at the time, I was rather worried.  What if they were right?

Eventually, of course, I looked into what was known about AIDS even then, and realized that they were not right.  And I still remember how angry I felt, realizing that I had been unnecessarily frightened over something that actually posed no significant threat to me -- by a campaign of misinformation that had been specifically designed to have that effect.

The Ebola hype is only the latest recurrence of this kind of phenomenon, but it's surely the most overblown, relative to the actual threat.  There are, after all, about a million HIV-positive people in the US, even if modern medicine has made it much more survivable and the risk to the other 309 million is so negligible as to be essentially nonexistent.  But we've had only three cases of Ebola in this country, and with the precautions already in place, there may well never be much more than that.

The folkloric "boy who cried wolf" eventually was merely ignored after he was exposed as an alarmist liar.  We can't ignore the Ebola hypesters, even though we've seen through them -- not with the sheer volume of yammering they keep up.  But we can give them the finger.  We don't believe you, we know this is bullshit, we're not going to panic and go crazy any more every time you tell us there's a monster under the bed, we're going to make fun of you.  That aggressive and angry rejection of the hype, I think, is the real message of Ebola-Chan.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you. This is exactly what has been bumping around in my brain but couldn't find a way to solidify.

You, as always, nailed it. :)


23 October, 2014 06:59  
Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

An interesting little essay - I must admit it'd never occurred to me that the current mockery of Ebola in many quarters might actually be a reaction to all the irresponsible fear-mongering about the disease that some people have been engaging in. I got a taste of that fear-mongering myself yesterday, when following a link (in a Pharyngula comment thread on the same subject) to a page on Amazon showing some of the books that site is currently selling on Ebola. While some of these books looked quite level-headed, and potentially worth a look (such as one simply titled Ebola, whose cover depicted what I presume is a tract of African rainforest), others did not. For example, there're a bunch of "prepper's guides" to the disease (no doubt catering to the survivalist set), as well as some masterpiece called What Obama Doesn't Want You to Know About Ebola, and the even more ridiculous-sounding Ebola: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid, whose cover depicts, among other things, a hand rising from the earth - obviously Ebola's going to turn us all into zombies or something. Yeah... I might pass on those ones!

I seem to recall us having had an Ebola scare here as well, though, again, it was something like one case (or suspected case) of the disease in the whole country. I haven't been too worried; to tell the truth, I find it's a subject that keeps dropping off my radar. In any event, I learned my lesson with Ebola way back in 1995, when there was an outbreak of it in the city of Kikwit, in Zaire (coincidentally around the same time the movie Outbreak came out in cinemas here!). At the time, I thought that outbreak meant we were all doomed to drown in an ocean of our own virus-laden blood (or some melodramatic nonsense like that), but thankfully for the world (and the people of Kikwit for that matter), the outbreak only ended up taking the lives of a few hundred people. A tragedy for the dead and their loved ones, of course, but a heartening reminder to the rest of us that, despite what some doomsayers might have been predicting, Ebola probably wasn't going to become the next Black Death!

23 October, 2014 08:21  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Connie: Thanks for the kind words! Been reading long?

Zosimus: Gaack. I didn't know Amazon is selling that kind of crap. I suppose they cater to anyone who's willing to shell out money for something. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised, though. I don't know what it's like in Australia, but the hysterics on the fringe right wing here in the US have gotten totally ridiculous (although, encouragingly, the mainstream of the population isn't very concerned). So the market is there.

No, there will never be another Black Death. Medical knowledge at the time of the Black Death was hardly more advanced than in the Stone Age, and hygienic conditions were vastly worse. Our medical science and technology today are light-years ahead of even what was available in 1920 when the global flu pandemic hit.

The exception, unfortunately, is sub-Saharan Africa, which has a number of unusual vulnerabilities -- perhaps the subject of another posting. Still, even Senegal and Nigeria have health systems robust enough to stop Ebola in its tracks after it first appeared in those countries, so I'm not worried about advanced countries like Australia and the US.

23 October, 2014 17:52  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

I think we all know the motive behind the absurd ebola hysteria encouraged by the crazies on the right. We can always count on the ignorance of the righties to make a difficult situation that much worse. As you rightly note, our medical science today is far and away superior to that which existed even 50 years ago. But what would we expect from a group of people who reject Evolution as received science?

24 October, 2014 18:10  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Shaw: Incredibly, the extremists are not only fomenting panic about Ebola but also fighting against efforts to develop a vaccine. Of course, if we had listened to them we'd still be living in the Dark Ages and probably still suffering from the Black Death.

25 October, 2014 07:23  

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